Community

Disposable wipes wreck wastewater treatment plants, will cost ratepayers plenty

Most people are busy and need to fit their housework into crowded schedules. It is no surprise that cleaning products are increasingly marketed to consumers eager to get the job done as quickly as possible.

Supermarket shelves are teeming with products that beckon shoppers with the promise of ease and convenience, including a new product that has become wildly popular in the past few years — disposable cleaning wipes.

According to recent reports, North American consumers bought nearly 83,000 tons of disposable wipes in 2004, which is enough to fill about 9,000 semi-truck trailers. MarketResearch.com reports that 60 percent of adults have used household cleaning wipes, and sales are expected to reach the $2 billion mark by 2010.

However, convenience has its price.

While some products boast the added convenience of being flushable and safe for sewers and septic systems, the people who maintain and operate our local and regional wastewater utilities disagree.

King County operates a regional sewer utility that provides wastewater treatment services for 34 local sewer agencies. The local agencies collect wastewater from homes and businesses, and send it to the county’s regional system for treatment.

Sewer utility crews for both the local and regional agencies are increasingly being called out to do battle with large balls of “flushable” cleaning wipes, pads, facial tissues, baby wipes and feminine hygiene products that have become tangled in pumping equipment.

In a worst-case scenario, jammed up pumps can lead to raw sewage overflows into homes, businesses and waterways, which threatens public health and the environment. At best, these problems are making the treatment process more expensive for ratepayers.

The materials that do make it to one of King County’s regional treatment plants have to be screened out, removed and taken to a landfill for disposal, so “flushable” wipes often end up in the garbage anyway. However, using the sewer system to transport trash is a very expensive and inefficient way to get it there, not to mention a waste of resources such as energy and water.

In 2008, King County spent well over $100,000 just to haul and dispose of sewer system trash in a landfill. This does not include the additional operation and maintenance costs of removing these materials and responding to the problems that they cause.

So why are some products labeled “flushable” when they don’t break down in the system? Producers of products are required to provide supportable data for environmental claims related to waste disposal. However, the existing standards for evaluating flushability are limited, according to a 2003 study published by the Water Environment Research Foundation. WERF is America’s leading independent scientific research organization dedicated to wastewater and stormwater issues.

According to WERF, flushability should be the subject of further study. Companies also should consider if and how the products are compatible with wastewater conveyance and treatment systems.

It is important to clarify that King County has not conducted tests on any particular brand or type of disposable or flushable products. Neither does the county discourage people from buying and using cleaning wipes.

King County does urge consumers who choose these products to dispose of them in the trash instead of flushing them down the toilet.

In fact, like most sewer utilities, King County and its customer agencies recommend flushing only bodily waste and toilet paper — that’s it. Everything else should be appropriately put in the trash, composted or recycled. Not only does this protect the local and regional sewer systems, but it can help residents avoid their own pipe clogs and expensive plumbing repairs.

So, in the quest to reduce costs and keep things tidy — from bathroom to baby — please do not flush items that may cause trouble. Please help protect public health, the environment and water quality and put used cleaning wipes, pads, swabs and anything else besides human waste and toilet paper in the trash, not in the toilet.

Kathy Lambert is the King County Councilmember for District 3 and is a member of the Regional Water Quality Committee and the King County Board of Health. Christie True is the division director of King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division.

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